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'Macbeth' at the Bolshoi: Zulu warriors, Kabuki masks

Double double, toil and trouble -- but where were the witches stirring the caldron? Where was Lady Mcbeth constantly washing her hands, Macduff and "all [ his] pretty ones," the woods coming to Dunsinane?

Shakespeare's "Macbeth" has been brought to the Bolshoi Theater as a ballet -- but with some changes.

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The three witches in this production have turned into a combination of Zulu warriors and lively yaks. Dressed in white tattered shrouds, faces whitened, and with skull masks on the backs of their heads, the three male dancers leap and cavort around the stage, surprising and delighting the audience because they dance on point.

They pirouette and pose in overlarge, blocked shoes, their white rags twisting with them and their masks creating eerie figures every time they turn away from the audience.

They huddle together at the front of the stage during scene changes and bounce out through the corps de ballet to haunt Macbeth whenever he strikes a thoughtful pose.

But there are more suprises in store. At the Macbeth castle a morality play is acted out.This time the characters wear white Kabuki-type masks -- a girl and two princes, who dance in stacked shoes. They neatly "kill" one another and are unmasked by the watching and plotting Lady Macbeth. Later, when Macbeth is having nightmares about the murders he has committed, the three ghosts (Duncan, the servant, and Banquo) appear to him -- and they all wear stacked shoes. . . .

The ballet is the conception of one of the Bolshoi's top male dancers, Vladimir Vasiliyev, who holds the title of People's Artist of the Soviet Union, the highest title a Soviet dancer can reach. He has been dancing with the company for more than 20 years and has been on tour in the West several times.

He is not new to choreography and now has two successful ballets in the Bolshoi repertoire: "Icarus," the story of the man who woudl fly, and "These Charming Sounds," an exquisite set of pure classical cameos danced by younger members of the company to the music of Torelli, Rameau, and Mozart.

But now Vasiliyev has choreographed a ballet for his own particular style of dancing. In fact, he alternates the leading role with a younger version of himself, Viktor Barykin. Known for his powerful and strong leaps (especially in the Grigorovich ballet "Spartacus"), Vasiliyev has created Macbeth with such force that the audience, while admiring the stamina of the dancers, is often left limp as they soar and turn.

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It is a dramatic ballet, with excellent all-purpose decor designed by V. Leventhal.The stirring music is from Soviet composer Kirill Molchanov. Together they set the mood well and conjure up the bleakness of the Scottish heath and castle.

Discussing the production after a recent dress rehearsal, I found that most of the audience approved -- possibly because Vasiliyev himself is very popular here. However, several dancers with whom I spoke felt the ballet was too reminiscent of previous Bolsjoi presentations -- "Ivan the Terrible" and "Spartacus" in particular.

"Alas, there is no progress," one dancer told me, referring to the choreography. "There are no changes in the style of dancing we have had for years."

Maybe not. But the Bolshoi has certainly brought changes to Shakespeare, and it adds up to a stirring evening's entertainment. Dancing Lady Macbeth to Vasiliyev's lead is Nina Timofeyeva, while the younger dancer Nina Semizorova takes the role to Viktor Barykin's Macbeth.

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